The inseparability of life and music

Justin Brake
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Songwriter Sean Panting releases long-awaited album 'Man of the Year,' a musical coming-of-age journey into family life

There's no way around it, his songs and stories concede. ... Life happens. At the turn of the millennium, songwriter Sean Panting found himself ambivalently charting new territory, watching as the younger, crazier days of gigging at local joints with popular '90s rock bands Drive and Kelly Russell and The Planks faded into the past - at the same time romanced by the prospect of ushering in a new era of greater personal creativity as a solo artist.

In just five short years, beginning with his debut solo album "Lotus Land" in 2000, Panting recorded and released four works, including 2002's "Pop Disaster" and 2005's "Victrola" and "Receiver."

The youngest of three well-known musically talented brothers (Geoff and Dave, the others) then found himself on new terrain again. And again. And again. It was a whirlwind of experiences that, at least musically, culminated in his long-awaited followup, "Man of the Year," released last month.

"What wasn't happening in my life?" he says, readying to fill me in on the past six years over a coffee moments after arriving late for our interview. He'd gone to the wrong café, which he jokes about to my amusement.

Sporting a minor case of bed head and a caffeinated pair of tired eyes, Panting is his witty self, though visibly still in recovery from Allan Hawco's wedding reception the night before.

The evening might not have gone so late had he, Alan Doyle and a few others not taken on the role of impromptu house band at the "Republic of Doyle" star's celebration at The Majestic Theatre.

In his acting life, for those who don't know, Panting plays Jake Doyle's lawyer friend in the popular television series.

But we're here to talk about music.

"When I put out 'Receiver' I was a childless, unmarried guy," he says. "Now I'm married, I have two kids, I've sold a house, bought a house, I lost my mother - there's a whole bunch of life events have gone on.

"It just seemed like every time I turned around I was on damage control, stompin' out fires every single day. So I think it's nice to have this album done, and in a way that the songs kind of document all that stuff."

I catch his reference to one of the album's numbers, "I Get Tired of Putting Out Fires," a subdued piece that recalls his experiences in all their joy and weariness and his dependency on music for fixes of normalcy.

"The stuff everybody encounters in their life, it just kind of came to (my wife and me) in some concentrated batches there for a while," he explains. And (the song) is about that, and about the experience of, (once) everybody in my house is asleep, going and playing one of these starting-at-midnight type gigs.

"Everybody's asleep, and all the problems that are going to crop up today have cropped up and I've either dealt with them and they're fixed or dealt with them and they're not. But there's nothing I can do about it now, and now I'm gonna go and do the thing that I know how to do."

Just as "I Can't Be Wrong" and "Solomon's Row" acted as mission statements for "Lotus Land" and "Receiver" respectively, "Man of the Year" opens the new album with a similar dose of honesty.

"I've spent my whole adult life waiting to get to this point where I'm the person in charge, the person that gets to make all the decisions, the person that has the responsibility, where I get to run the show," Panting says, the high off having a new record eclipsing his mid-morning grogginess.

"And now I'm here, and what I wasn't really thinking about was the challenge. Don't screw this up, because ... now there are other people's lives at stake when you make mistakes. And so there's a thread of that that goes through all the songs in various places."

"Everybody Knows It's Over" continues the album's rock bearing and is followed by "Labrador Motors," one of Panting's more eloquent individual songwriting achievements.

Electric guitars and soothing piano lines accompany the feeling and story of being away from his wife when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant.

"I was in Labrador (touring with 'Revue') and ... I was thinking, what am I doing here?" he recalls.

In a hotel room in Lab City, he explains, "I took a piece of paper and I decided on a key and the number of chords I was allowed to use and a few words that had to be peppered into the song.

"And I said, for my subject I'm going to open up the drapes. There wasn't nothin' there," he chuckles, "except the Labrador Motors sign for a car dealership. Then I started writing a song about being in a hotel room and just looking around, describing all the things I see. But then as the song goes on ... the idea (becomes), why am I here looking at the Labrador Motors sign? I should be home."

He returned to St. John's and, just three weeks later, became a father for the first time.

In that songwriter-song relationship that some obscure with clever lyrics or share with illuminating honesty, Panting seems pleased with his recently acknowledged ability to deal with the experience of uncertainty.

"I think it's my brain's way of tricking me into starting to write a song that might be a little bit difficult for me in terms of subject matter," he says.

"If I get out of the way and allow the stuff that's in there come out without trying to edit too quickly, then often times the subconscious part of my brain, it'll give me the song I'm supposed to be writing."

The result, he says jokingly, is an album that, "if it's (playing) in the room, I don't feel the urge to go somewhere else."

With the help of Don Ellis (also the album's co-producer) on bass and Adam Staple on drums, Panting has produced a sort of coming-of-age record with sounds of his rock and folk inclinations spattered throughout.

"Career-wise this is the most important thing I've done," he says. "It's the thing that I started doing the earliest and it's the thing that I like to do the best - writing songs and playing music.

"I feel like the songs are the best song I've written, I feel like it's the best recording I've done, I'm really happy about it, and so this is the central thing. I love being an actor ... but playing music makes me feel normal. Playing music is what I'm supposed to be doing. I always know that when I'm doing it."

 

Organizations: Labrador Motors, Majestic Theatre

Geographic location: Labrador, Lab, St. John's

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